The art of thinking on paper

do you keep a diary?

The art of thinking on paper

Bridget Jones may have made it fashionable, but diary keeping has always been the one way humanity has managed to keep track of things that happen every day, whether good or bad.

  Dating back to the times of Frances Burney and English navy administrator Samuel Pepys in the 17th century, diary writers have been playwrights and novelists (as Burney was) as well as politicians like the infamous Reich Minister Goebbels or the famous Ronald Regan.  Anne Frank with her posthumously published diary managed to highlight the plight of Jewish families in the holocaust, but so did the little diary from Prague written by Petr Ginz before he was deported to Auschwitz.

Impressive as the list of diary writers is, the art of keeping a note of your everyday actions has been something that has stayed constant through the centuries.  From the first note you wrote about how your best friend at school refused to sit next to you to anguished accounts penned when a beloved walked out of your life or records of thoughts that fill one’s head in moments in silence when it feels like there’s nobody else around, there’s always somebody keeping track of their lives somewhere.  Diaries have been more friends than books, and writing in your diary eventually becomes easier than having to tell somebody about that little ache in your heart every time you see someone.

Unedited feelings

When you’re writing in your diary, you can actually be yourself.  No longer is it necessary to keep that smile plastered on your face even if you were scowling inside.  Brutally honest, almost dangerously so, diaries have forever been the most important albeit risky documentation of your journey through life. Only in your diary do you get to see the real you, your actual views on a situation and your natural reactions. Only with a diary is it possible to genuinely hurt the wrong reader or ruin a relationship you so carefully try to hold upright.

Like most other introspective, solitary actions, keeping a diary no longer means you have to wait for an aunt to gift you that little diary with a lock that you can write all your secrets in. Getting your personal blog started takes all of a minute once you’re in front of that computer.  Anirudh S, who documented a large part of his early college years online, tells me of how keeping track of things that happened were “a therapeutic way of dealing with what was happening to me then.  The aim of putting stuff online was also so if anyone else read it, they’d find that they were not alone in what they were experiencing as well.”

What a diary also does is take stock of the person you are, and most often than not, you’ll probably have yourself wondering if you’re really that cynical about everyone whom you come across. Franz Kafka believed that referring back to old journal entries — looking back on situations, life changes, and old sufferings — gives one a kind of reassuring feeling. You look back on these situations and times — some “which today would seem unbearable” — and you realise you lived, you survived. You were even able to write it all down! And doing so can lead to great wisdom about yourself.

A little too introspective perhaps, but diary writing somehow manages to get you to grow as a person. Chances are the same things that affected you 365 days ago will not affect you today. While these moments of revelation help you understand yourself, don’t be in a rush to tear those pages out and burn them.  Not only do those occasions toughen you up, they let your heart grow larger, and in some ways let go of ties that bind and gag.

Revisiting old suffering

Jonathan Franzen also talked about the insights he gained from looking back at old journal entries. He speaks of the feelings of mortification he felt from reading even day-old entries, discovering his own “fraudulence and pomposity and immaturity.” These insights made him desperate to change himself, “to sound less idiotic.” His journal entries, he attests, led him to a private commitment to personal growth.

Matthew Lieberman, a psychologist at the University of California in Los Angeles, joined a group of researchers a couple of years ago to study, through fMRIs, the whole ‘Bridget Jones Effect.’  Working out negative emotions by simply writing them down at the end of the day, can actually trick your brain into feeling better. “It’s initiating an emotion-regulation process that the person usually isn't even aware of,” Lieberman explained. “The research indicates that if you are writing in a diary or talking to a friend about your feelings, it's often going to be beneficial.”

David Sedaris, who wrote of keeping a diary for thirty-three years, accepted that most of it is really just whining — “but every so often there’ll be something I can use later: a joke, a description, a quote.”

A healthy habit

Thus, would writing down your thoughts help to make you a happier healthier person? Absolutely. If it means consciously telling yourself you’re going to keep track of two things everyday that made you smile, not only are you going to keep an eye out for more cheerful things throughout the day, but you’ll find you’re more optimistic than you used to be and things aren’t as grey as the seem to be.

Change as always is inevitable, stick shift cars become automatic, levers become buttons, phones get smart, cameras get ‘selfie sticks’, books get loaded onto kindles, ink pens give way to ballpoint pens to typewriters and computers, and writing on paper moves on to typing material that can be saved online.  Always easier than fighting it, change brings with it the need to adapt.

Whether fiction or real life, diary writing is taking on a whole new avatar this year. Through frantic scribbling, quick shorthand notes, language in code, notepads, online diaries and blogs, the 21st century now has a ‘self-writing’ diary.  If you aim to start keeping a record this 2017 of everything interesting that happens to you, but never have the time, the new Trisent-developed ‘Codi’ contextual diary mobile phone app is just for you. Automatically keeping a record of all your activities, including how long you slept, how long your commute was to work and how much time you’ve spent seated, the app also has records information on what the weather was like, photographs of where you were and what happened in the news that day. It does help that there is a little ‘scrapbook’ where you can add your notes and thoughts as well. 

Then again, mobile app or online, at the end of the day, there’s nothing like a good hardcover diary with fresh new pages for the year ahead that gets the writer in you going. From prose and poetry to mundane feelings, pick up your pen and get started. Besides, the fact of the matter is diaries can also be invaluable aids when winning arguments you might otherwise lose; you’re bound to have the upper hand when you have actual written facts to back your cause.

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